I have been teaching second language speakers of English for many years now and one thing that many students are very concerned with is their vocabulary. Having a large vocabulary is a wonderful thing, since it not only helps you to understand the words other people might be using, but primarily it allows you to communicate in richer and more creative ways. For example, imagine your vocabulary was a box of colored pencils. While you could still draw anything you wanted with the 10 colors in your box, imagine what you could draw with a box of 100 colors! Instead of just describing a flower as beautiful, suddenly you could describe it as exquisite, resplendent, and magnificent. While all of these words for "beautiful" might be a shade of red, they are all a slightly different color with slightly different meanings.
While just about everyone agrees that having a large vocabulary is very useful and beneficial, there is a lot of disagreement and misconceptions about how to go about building your vocabulary. Some people say that all it takes is a good memory and hard work, while others will say that reading and using a dictionary is the best way. I know that when I was studying for SATs, everyone was telling me that I should be reading news magazines like TIME and Newsweek to build up my vocabulary. However, do these things actually work? Many of us have used flashcards and vocabulary lists to study before a test, but almost always this vocabulary is just temporary and fades away, seemingly right at the beginning of whatever major exams we are taking. Many of us have also read a lot in hopes of building our vocabulary, however, while we can guess the meaning of words when we read them, few of these words actually seem to make it into our memory. Also, using a dictionary to look up words we do not know? First, often times dictionary definitions are not very clear, and second, most of us stop using the dictionary after a while because it is a burden.
To really build our vocabulary, we need to understand how our brain and our memory work. Short-term memory is very easy to develop. We can repeat a series of numbers over and over and we will remember it perfectly for a few minutes, or maybe even a few days. However, short-term memory, as the name implies, is short-term. Flashcards and word lists are all about cramming our short-term memory in hopes that those words will be in our heads long enough for whatever test or exam we are taking. The real challenge in building vocabulary is to transfer this information into our long-term memory. Short-term memory is like writing with an empty pen on a sheet of paper. We can see the impression we make on the paper, but the moment we look away it is really hard to find again. In fact, in one study by Hermann Ebbinghaus (1913), participants were made to memorize a list of random nonsense words. The study found that over 90% of the information was forgotten within a few days. This is the "forgetting curve." The longer something sits in our short-term memory, the more likely it is over time for it to disappear. Luckily it does not have to be this way; there are things we can do to reinforce the information in our short-term memory so that it will be less likely for our brain to forget.
The key to moving from short-term to long-term memory is spaced repetition. The idea behind this theory is that we need to test or reinforce the information in our short-term memory frequently, but not too frequently. For example, if we were trying to memorize a vocabulary list, repeating it every day may not be the most effective way of moving that vocabulary list into our long-term memory; you will have more success if you space out your review of the list. In other words, instead of studying that list every day, try studying that list ever two or three days instead. What Ebbinghaus found was that the best time to try to remember something is when it is on the verge of being forgotten. This supposedly strengthens the neural pathways associated with the information, making it last for a longer period of time. Thus, if you do have to memorize a large list of vocabulary, you can increase the chances of moving a good portion of that vocabulary into long(er) term memory, and save yourself from wasting time on vocabulary that is still fresh in your memory, by spacing out how often you review that list.
However, while vocabulary lists may be a necessity in certain situations, there are other much better ways of building your vocabulary. One such way is studying vocabulary in context. What this means is that we should learn vocabulary in its natural setting, and not just from an isolated list. The simplest way of doing this is to learn vocabulary in sentences. However, an even better way is to actually try using these words in conversations and writing. For example, try to place the vocabulary word you are trying to learn in a sentence that you create. It does not have to be very different from whatever example you found it in, but by making some small changes to it, suddenly it becomes yours, increasing the likelihood that you will remember it. Another way of looking at this is trying to recall what clothing people wore to class yesterday. While you might not remember what someone else wore to class yesterday, you will most likely remember what you yourself were wearing in class.
Another way to build vocabulary is to make it personal or emotional. Whenever something very emotional happens, we often will have a very clear memory of it. This could be something like the first time you went on a date with someone you really liked, or when you found out something really bad had happened to one of your friends. How can we do this? Instead of having a sterile example for a vocabulary word, such as "The cabin in the countryside is bucolic and nice," try something like "Every summer my family would visit my grandparents in the countryside. It was calm and bucolic, and not like the city at all." Include the idea of spaced repetition, and it will be unlikely for you to ever forget this word.
While there are still many more ways that we can use our understanding of how memory works to build our vocabulary, this idea of spaced repetition, learning vocabulary in context, and making an emotional or personal connection with words, can really help to increase our chances of actually retaining and using new vocabulary. Do not waste your time studying words that are already clear in your short-term memory; you are not going to remember them even more. Instead, give yourself some time before you review. In addition, when you review, make sure there is a connection and context for the vocabulary you are trying to learn. Try it out. It is supported by science!
Ebbinghaus, H. (1913). Memory; a contribution to experimental psychology. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.